15 Apr 2017 – The Myth Behind the Muscle, or what's the Beef with Bulky?

Coach Maria circa 1989 (left), circa 2011 (middle), circa 2017 (right). Coach Maria trains 1.5 - 2 hours a day, 5 days per week. She consumes at least 2600 calories per day (aka A LOT).

We are well in to our strength cycle now and our blogs and social media posts abound with jokes about "Making the Gainz". We’re asking you to lift heavy, we’re decreasing the volume of conditioning workouts, and we’re programming dumbbell bench press.


Ladies, I think it’s a pretty good time to address the elephant in the room… 


What if you don’t want to get the gainz?? What if you don’t want to increase the circumference of your biceps? What if you just want to get a bit more toned? 


What if you don’t want to get bulky?
 

This post is going to start off as a bit of a rant, but bear with me. It gets more motivational towards the end.

The first rant begins…

American gymnast and 2016 Olympic individual all-around, vault and floor gold medalist, Simone Biles (top); British Track and Field Athlete and 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, Jessica Ennis (bottom left); 2015 CrossFit Games Athletes preparing for the Open Water swim event (right)

What is bulky?

Am I bulky? Is Simone Biles bulky? Is Jessica Ennis bulky? What about these CrossFit Games athletes?

What’s the difference between bulky and muscular? Muscular and lean? Lean and toned?

Why is it ok and acceptable for someone or something else to shape your opinion of what too bulky is for you, if you’re enjoying your training? 

Followed quickly by the second rant…

Let’s say you consider any of the aforementioned women to be too bulky for your tastes - their body shape is not what you would desire for yourself. Fair enough, again, to each their own and who am I to shape your opinion of what too bulky is! 

But take a minute to rationalise… Do you believe that these athletes picked up a dumbbell one day and their biceps grew exponentially, immediately? Do you think they did three sets of 60 kg back squats and the next day their ass and quads became so large that none of their jeans fit anymore? Do you think that the volume and intensity of strength training the average woman does every day in her CrossFit box or gym is enough to make her body look like this? If you answered yes to any of these questions, that's straight up ignorant and naive. Furthermore, by thinking that, you have completely undermined the effort these women have put in to get to where they are today. 

These athletes train at least 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week. Not to mention the time (and money!) they spend on recovery. They are meticulous with their nutrition and eat A LOT to support that training. They miss out on social engagements and make loads of sacrifices to develop their bodies into finely tuned, highly trained machines in order to achieve the goals they set out for themselves. And it takes a long time.

::Deep Breath::

Calming down, most women I have spoken to choose not to lift, or are tentative to increase the weight that they’re lifting, because they do not want to get bulky, i.e. gain too much muscle. Again, what “too much muscle” means is entirely subjective to you, but know that it doesn’t happen over night, and you have to put in some serious hours and make some difficult choices and commitments to get as muscular as these athletes. 

As explained by Molly Galbraith of Girls Gone Strong:

Because most of the studies done on hypertrophy have been on men, post-menopausal women, or women with health conditions, it’s impossible to state with certainty how much lean mass a woman can expect to gain when she starts strength training. What I can tell you is that not a single expert guessed that it was greater than .5 – 1 lb. a month for the first 6-12 months, and that it slows considerably the longer you’ve been training. And this is in women who are making a conscious effort to gain lean mass, and eating to support these goals.

So Why Should You Lift?

Let’s start with the physical benefits…

Increase your lean mass

Often, when people say they want to tone their physique, what they’re actually saying is they want to gain lean mass, and for good reason! Increasing your lean mass (aka your muscle mass) not only helps to give the appearance of a toned physique, it also helps maintain a healthy body composition because muscle is a metabolically expensive tissue, i.e. it burns more calories than fat tissue.

Put yourself ahead of the game (Bone density and Sarcopenia)

Strength training will also put you ahead in the Age Game, helping you maintain your good health as you get older. Lifting weights and lifting heavy not only increases bone density, which will help to prevent the effects of osteoporosis as you get older, it also helps reduce the effects of sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass, strength and mobility as you age. You’ll be the kick-ass 80 year old Grandma forgoing the zimmer frame to go hiking with your grandkids!

Fat loss (oh wait, wasn’t that your goal to begin with??)

As mentioned above, an increase in lean mass means an accelerated metabolism, which in turn promotes fat loss (assuming you’re eating as you should do).

Now the mental benefits, because you should all know by now that training encompasses so much more than a 20 minute AMRAP to get you sweaty! 

Set more rewarding goals

Weight training gives us the opportunity to set positive, performance-based goals instead of negative, aesthetics-based targets (“I want to gain speed by getting an 8 minute 2k row, gain strength by adding 10 kg to my back squat, improve my fitness by being able to complete Murph as Rx” as opposed to “I want to lose 5 kg, drop an inch around my waist, fit into those size 10 shorts”).

Whereas training for an arbitrary aesthetic goal can be demotivating, training for a physical, tangible goal is much more rewarding and more exciting to follow through. 

Develop confidence in overcoming a challenge

You know that little internal monologue you have before you approach a heavy bar? “I got this, the last set felt easy, I’m feeling strong today”. That’s called confidence and the bar is your challenge. Think that that confidence leaves you as soon as you walk out of the gym? Think again. The confidence you develop in your training will transfer directly over to any challenges you face outside of the box. You’ll find an increased sense of confidence overcoming any obstacle you face, regardless of if it is measured in kilos or in a presentation at work.

Learn to deal with failure and character building

I can’t sugar coat everything. There will be days when your lifts won’t go as planned. Or a goal you set for yourself might take longer to achieve than anticipated. Strength training is a great exercise in building character, in learning to deal with failure, in picking yourself back up and trying again when you fail, in sticking with it when you can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just like your improved confidence, these skills from your training will transfer over and help in the way you deal with problems in your every day life.

Become a positive role model

Although I questioned if there was such a thing as too muscular (determined by one’s personal taste and preference), I’m certain there is such a thing as too skinny, which comes down to health and wellness. In a world dominated by unattainable notions of beauty, why not be the woman that shows younger girls not what they should look like, but what they can do. 

Let’s refer back to those women I mentioned before when I was ranting about what ‘too bulky’ actually means. I selected their photos because I know that we all look up to them. We are awe-struck when we see them on television, we well up with patriotic pride when they stand on the podium, and if we saw them in the street, you better believe we’d stop them for their photo. However, I bet you that we don’t do this because of the way these women look in their Instagram selfies or the way they rock a bikini. These women are empowering to other people (both women and men) not for how they look, but for how they perform. Their bodies have a purpose and they are doing everything in their power to fulfil that purpose. That is inspiring. 

Regardless of your training background, your goals, what you want your body to look like, or what other people think about you, know that you can be strong, you can be athletic and you can move well. Focus on these positives in your training, instead of focusing on how you should look, and in addition to being strong and healthy, you might also possess that one thing that makes you more attractive than anything else... Happiness :)

* I would like to give credit and thanks to one of our members (who shall remain anonymous, but is known by all as an incredibly strong, gifted athlete and a beautiful person) who was kind enough to share their own experiences with body image and weight training with me and whose feedback helped to shape this blog.

WORKOUT OF THE DAY

A) Strength: Deadlift

1 x 5 @ 75%
1 x 3 @ 80%
1 x 3 @ 85%
1 x AMRep @ 95%

B) Strength Accessory

3-5 rounds:
20 Alternating arm dumbbell bench press (top down)
10-12 Single arm dumbbell row
10-12 Bulgarian split squat
Max set strict toes to bar

* Move with purpose from movement to movement
* Rest 2-3 minutes between rounds